When the Crystal Palace and Park opened in south London in 1854, it was an instant sensation. Visitors came from far and wide to see the giant glass structure that had been rebuilt there, bigger and better, after the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park. Wide-eyed spectators wandered freely through Egyptian and Medieval Courts, delighted in high-wire circus acts, and were transported by a 4,000-piece orchestra.
Tucked away in a corner of the vast gardens that fanned out from the palace, past sweeping terraces and more fountains than even at Versailles, was a smaller but no less ambitious attraction. Scattered across several islands in the middle of a lake stood three dozen life-size sculptures of prehistoric animals, including several dinosaurs up to 30 feet long—the world’s first attempt to model them at full scale.
The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs were the work of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a natural history artist who, aided by some of the leading scientists of the day, had dreamt up a grand experiment in visual education, bringing to life the “dry bones or oddly shaped stones” found in the British Museum and introducing the masses to the burgeoning science of paleontology. By reconstructing Britain’s long-extinct animals, he hoped to “render the appearance and names of the ancient inhabitants of our globe as familiar as household words.”
The palace burned down in the 1930s, but, almost 170 years after they were crafted, most of Hawkins’ original sculptures still stand sentry in the park. Today, they’re mostly famous for being wildly inaccurate. With few complete fossils to work off, Hawkins had to use his imagination and the advice of comparative anatomists to breathe life into his models, which, in addition to four true dinosaurs, also depict prehistoric mammals, reptiles and amphibians. As a result, the sculptures look suspiciously like many modern-day creatures.
“People kind of scoff and giggle, because they look so wrong today, but at the time they were really cutting-edge,” says Bob Nicholls, a paleoartist who, through careful study of archival images, recently reconstructed a lost sculpture that had disappeared from the park sometime in the 1960s. His tapir-like model of Palaeotherium magnum, an animal we now know looked a lot more like a horse, was unveiled in July and now stands among Hawkins’ own surviving creations.
Several other sculptures have disappeared over the years, and time has not been kind to the rest. Standing on the lakeshore on a recent Saturday afternoon, Ellinor Michel, an evolutionary biologist at London’s Natural History Museum, rattles off a history of neglect. Despite occasional restoration work, many of the models are cracked, their paint long flaked off. A few years ago, the jaw of the Megalosaurus, one of the park’s most iconic dinosaurs, fell off altogether and had to be replaced with a prosthetic. Today, several sculptures are nearly invisible in the chest-high weeds choking the islands. One bush sprouts directly from the back of an Ichthyosaur, a large marine reptile that went extinct some 90 million years ago. “Some of them are OK-ish, some of them are absolutely dire,” Michel says. “We have said for a long time that we could wake up one morning and a few of them could have broken in half.”
Michel lives near the park with her partner, Jon Todd, a paleontologist and senior curator at the Natural History Museum. In 2013, she co-founded the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, a charity dedicated to preserving and promoting the sculptures. Since then, the couple and a group of like-minded scientists and enthusiasts have pushed Bromley Council, the local authority in charge of the park, to take better care of the dinosaurs. (The group also commissioned and largely funded Nicholls’ new addition.) They are now cautiously optimistic: A £5 million (around $6.3 million) project to spruce up the area is supposed to see all of the dinosaurs restored to their former glory over the coming years. A specially appointed trust is already set to take over daily management of the park in September.
When I meet them in the park, the pair are pointedly dressed: Todd sports a T-shirt printed with anglerfish, and Michel wears leggings covered in colorful sea urchins. “Lots of plants and animals in our lives,” she explains. “Once in the park, a little kid came up to us with an ammonite T-shirt, and I was like, ‘Dude, you float my boat!’”
After inspecting a pair of Irish elk, we head straight for the islands. They form a key part of Hawkins’ design, Todd explains, with the water acting as a natural boundary to delineate geologic eras. “They were unsure about mass extinctions at the time, but they definitely knew there was a break and a change in faunas,” he says.
On one of the main islands, which is home to the park’s most prominent sculptures, Hawkins managed to compress the entire sweep of the Mesozoic era. Standing near the hulking Megalosaurus, which dates from the Middle Jurassic period, Todd points out Cretaceous and Triassic specimens on either side of the beast. They’re surrounded by age-appropriate swamp cypresses and ferns, and even a trunk of silicified Jurassic wood.
All around the site, Hawkins and his collaborators placed rocks and other features to take visitors on a geological jaunt through some 260 million years of Earth’s history. They didn’t skimp on details, either. Ducking underneath the Megalosaurus, Todd shows me the intricate scales covering the beast’s belly—far too fine for any of the spectators on shore to see. “The patterns are different for each dinosaur,” he says. “The amount of work they put in, it’s just extraordinary.”
Sculpting the models occupied Hawkins for the better part of two years. Advised by experts like Richard Owen, a prominent naturalist who had coined the term Dinosauria just a decade earlier, he imagined what the animals might have looked like—often blending saurian and mammalian anatomies. Hawkins misplaced horns and spikes, and some of his robust four-legged dinosaurs were actually gracile bipeds. But he correctly covered some of his dinosaurs in scales and was often spot-on when reconstructing prehistoric mammals.
“There’s a huge amount of speculation and conjecture,” says Chris Manias, a historian of science at King’s College London. “They’re very, very different to how we would currently reconstruct them, but also not completely fanciful.”
Manias and other experts also point out that Hawkins’ work in Crystal Palace Park marked a giant leap for paleontology: He not only dispelled the notion, perpetuated by early paleoart, of prehistoric animals as semi-mythological creatures, but his meticulous recreations also often landed close enough to the truth. The result, then, was both ahead of its time and, within just a few years of completion, hopelessly outdated—which served as a cautionary tale for others in the field and meant that few similar projects were attempted in the decades to follow. When Hawkins himself returned to the subject for a painting in 1877, he showed many of his Crystal Palace creations with noticeably evolved features.
“They’re pretty much unique, because they’re both the earliest models we have and also there’s very little like them for the next 30 or 40 years,” Manias says of the sculptures.
Physically building the statues was a whole other challenge: One of the Iguanodons alone required some 600 bricks, 1,500 tiles and over 100 casks of cement and broken stone. The finished statue is nearly nine feet high and weighs in around 10,000 pounds. To celebrate his achievement, Hawkins hosted a New Year’s Eve banquet in 1853 in either the under-construction sculpture or its hollow cast (historical accounts are unclear). The guests were served an eight-course menu including pigeon pie, pheasants and French pastries.
Hawkins’ celebratory mood likely did not last long: The park opened before he could finish his work, and his funding was abruptly cut shortly after, leaving several of his sculptures uncompleted or on the drawing board. “They were already partway through building a mammoth, which never made it to the park,” says Nicholls, the paleoartist. “Which is a shame.”
Nicholls has been obsessed with dinosaurs for as long as he can remember and first came across Hawkins’ sculptures as a child, poring over his well-thumbed natural history books. He visited the models for the first time in the early 2000s, when conservators happened to be in the middle of repairing some of the sculptures. “I stood there for a bit, wishing I could go over and say, ‘Can I have a go?’” he recalls during a Zoom call from his Bristol studio, sitting in front of a shelf teeming with dinosaur figurines. “So for 20 years or so I’ve regretted not asking to be involved.”
Nicholls eventually got in touch with Michel and Mark Witton, another paleontologist and paleoartist, and the conversation naturally turned to the lost sculptures. Michel and Witton had recently written a book, The Art and Science of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, and, in the course of their research, discovered that seven of the original specimens in the park had disappeared over the previous 170 years, including two Jurassic pterodactyls and a giant deer. Because it was best preserved in sketches and photographs, the choice for Nicholls’ recreation eventually fell on Palaeotherium magnum, one of the first fossil mammals to be described by early paleontologists (its name is simply ancient Greek for “old beast”).
Once the Friends group secured the funding, Nicholls got to work. He began by sculpting polystyrene blocks onto a custom wood armature, wrapping it in chicken wire and molding clay on top. Once this initial model was in shape, he poured silicone over the clay and, after the liquid had hardened into rubber, placed a plastic jacket over the whole construction. From the resulting mold he made a hollow fiberglass copy, which now stands beneath a group of towering oaks on a bluff overlooking the lake. It’s as inaccurate as the rest of Hawkins’ creations—which is entirely the point.
As we make our way towards Nicholls’ Palaeotherium and out of the park, I ask Michel what the sculptures mean to her. She points out that the oddly shaped creatures, with all their flaws and wrong assumptions, have an awful lot to teach us still.
“Beyond dinosaurs, beyond even paleontology, it’s that process of the layering of ideas and the improvement of ideas—how science works,” she says. “It really comes to life through seeing them right there.”